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Mary Jane Richardson Jones, Emancipation and Women’s Suffrage Activist

By Jennifer Harbour
Portrait of Mary Richardson Jones, circa 1865
Portrait of Mary Richardson Jones, circa 1865

Chicago History Museum, ICHi-062628

She was mistress of the home where Nathan Freer, John Brown, Frederick Douglass and Allen Pinkerton visited. She harbored and fed the fugitive slaves that these men brought to her door as a refuge until they could be transported to Canada. In fact she stood at my Grand-father’s side — her husband John Jones — when their early Chicago home became one of the Underground Railway Stations. It was she who stood guard at the door when these pioneer abolitionists were in conference — with the slaves huddled below in her basement.

Theodora Lee Purnell, September 2, 19551
Mary Jane (née Richardson) Jones, an African American woman, was born free in 1819 in Memphis, Tennessee and would make her way to Illinois, where she would spend the remainder of her life. As her granddaughter noted in the above reminiscence, Mary opened her home to enslaved people escaping to freedom. But her life as an Underground Railroad operative was just one of many methods for her activism, which also included emancipation and suffrage, illustrating how black women took up the double mantle of gender and racial equality.
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1 Letter by Theodora Lee Purnell, September 2, 1955. John Jones Collection, Chicago History Museum.
Portrait of John Jones, circa 1865
Portrait of John Jones, circa 1865

Chicago History Museum, ICHi-062485; Aaron E. Darling, artist

Mary (along with her parents) moved to Alton, Madison County, Illinois in 1838. As it turns out, many black people chose the Midwest for settlement: it had a growing emancipation network; a bustling Underground Railroad with black, white, and Native American activists; and an abundance of land for businesses, homes, schools, and especially churches. Mary married John Jones, a free black man from North Carolina in 1841. The couple was involved in black community activities, including the formation of antislavery societies, the organization of the Liberty Party, and the Underground Railroad. Alton was in fact a starting point on an Underground Railroad route that ran from Alton to Jacksonville, La Salle, Ottawa, and Chicago.

In 1845, the couple went in search of a place for John to open a business, and they decided to move to Chicago. On their way, the couple narrowly avoided being arrested as fugitive slaves. In Chicago, they would not only make a successful life for themselves, but continue to expand their activism, helping to both build and protect the black community.
The Joneses became part of Chicago’s oldest black congregation housed at Quinn Chapel, founded as a prayer group in 1844. Three years later, worshippers joined with the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME). Quinn was a hotbed of activity for Chicago’s black activists, who declared that the destruction of slavery played a chief role in their spiritual lives. As with most black congregations in nineteenth-century America, churchgoers framed themselves within an “activist ministry” paradigm; to them, Christ’s teaching compelled them to seek justice and civil rights for all black people everywhere, regardless of their free or enslaved status. Mary and three other black women, known as the “Big Four,” guided people on the Underground Railroad, wrote pamphlets and speeches against the Black Codes, administered day and Sunday schools, joined intellectual and legal abolitionist societies, conducted prayer meetings, and even staffed neighborhood watches (following the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850). Once Northerners were obligated by law to help catch “runaway slaves,” and the number of bounty hunters increased, these watches were key to keeping any black person safe, not just formerly enslaved people who had gained their freedom through extra-legal means.

Certificates of Freedom for John Jones and Mary Jones
Certificates of Freedom for John Jones and Mary Jones

Chicago History Museum, ICHi-031975

When the Civil War came in 1861, women like Mary stepped up their activist ministry to include recruitment for the United States Colored Troops (USCT), and poor relief and fundraising for soldiers’ families. Mary was a founding member of the Chicago’s Colored Ladies Freedmen’s Aid Society (CCLFAS), created in 1861 “to alleviate the condition of the destitute, whose piteous wail floats up to us upon every Southern breeze.”2 The CCLFAS had a board of directresses composed of seven women. The group served formerly enslaved people in two significant ways: by sending money to places where freed people lived and by sending goods directly to camps, towns, and cities where refugees lived. But the work of the CCLFAS was not limited to women’s reproductive labor – they also circulated a petition for the “entire abolition of slavery,” which they then sent to various federal officials in Washington, DC.3 They also consistently apprised locals of their work through columns and letters to the AME newspaper, The Christian Recorder.
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2 The Christian Recorder, September 14, 1861.
3 The Christian Recorder, November 21, 1863.
Mary Richardson Jones circa 1865
Mary Richardson Jones, sometime after 1883. Chicago History Museum, ICHi-022363; Baldwin & Drake, photographer. (https://images.chicagohistory.org/search/?searchQuery=mary+richardson+jones&assetType=default)
Mary’s activism continued as she committed herself to the cause of women’s suffrage, which occupied a great deal of time after John’s passing in 1879. Mary possessed one of the greatest fortunes in upper-middle-class black America, and she used her social and political capital to create friendships with Susan B. Anthony, Mary Ann Brown (spouse of abolitionist John Brown), Carrie Chapman Catt, and Emma Chandler. When she died in 1910, she had worked tirelessly for the destruction of slavery and the Black Codes, the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, and suffrage. Sadly, she did not live to see the passage of the 19th amendment, but her memory is forever linked to the ongoing struggle for civil rights.
Jennifer Harbour is an associate professor of Black Studies and Women’s, Sexuality, and Gender Studies at the University of Nebraska Omaha. Her first book, Organizing Freedom: Black Emancipation Activism in the Civil War Midwest was published by the Southern Illinois University Press in 2020. Dr. Harbour teaches courses on African American History, Black Studies, Modern Africa, and Genocide and International Human Rights.

Last updated: February 1, 2021